Mexico City Cathedral lights up the streets, but are those streets safe?
Mexico City Cathedral lights up the streets, but are those streets safe?
Guillermo Aldana/Visit Mexico

Touring Amid a City's Turmoil

The Metropolitan Cathedral anchors the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square, which should be avoided after dark. Tourists should
The Metropolitan Cathedral anchors the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square, which should be avoided after dark. Tourists should "take all the precautions they would in any major city," a U.S. Embassy official said. (By Guillermo Aldana -- Visit Mexico)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

The side streets in downtown Mexico City were so dark that I had to stop at every corner to check the directions to Zinco, a hot jazz club. The friend who recommended the place had warned against walking in the neighborhood after hours, but I didn't want to pass up the chance to visit one of the most popular music venues in town.

A couple of weeks earlier, bombs had blasted three buildings in the city. The attacks, linked to political clashes in the southern state of Oaxaca, were the latest reminder of the general mayhem that has descended on the Mexican capital in recent months. Paseo de la Reforma, a central artery, was the scene of a two-month protest last summer and fall that left some public buildings closed. Just days before my trip last month, Antonio O. Garza Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, posted a letter on the embassy Web site warning of the violence taking place in the capital and other parts of the country.

Street crime also has long plagued this 580-square-mile, traffic-clogged metropolis of more than 20 million residents. The list of crimes encountered by travelers is daunting: pickpocketing, purse snatching, mugging, armed robbery and rape, according to the U.S. State Department's consular information sheet on Mexico. "Instant kidnappings," in which the victims are abducted at gunpoint and forced to empty their bank accounts to pay a ransom, also are common. Even hailing taxis is considered risky.

Is a trip to a place with so many sore spots worth it? And if you go, how best to stay safe? I recently spent a long weekend in the capital trying to find out.

Why Go

Mexico City's high-voltage, cosmopolitan vibe is hard to resist -- as are the bargains. At such restaurants as the ultra-chic Aguila y Sol, three superb courses of nouvelle Mexican fare and an exotic cocktail go for $30. Craft markets such as La Ciudadela offer silver jewelry, leather bags and other high-quality handmade goods for a quarter of what they'd cost in the States. At Bar Fly, a trendy club in the Polanco district, revelers can live la vida loca all night -- red-hot tunes, sleek dance moves and all.

To balance these contemporary attractions, an enthralling historical scene awaits: the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Chapultepec Park; the Zocalo, a sweeping, handsome square anchored by a centuries-old cathedral; and San Juan Teotihuacan, an archaeological site easily reachable from the city center.

Still, for a casual traveler, even the city's efforts to keep the ongoing political and drug wars at bay can be a turnoff. Guards armed with automatic weapons are a common sight near public buildings. One sunny afternoon during my visit, a busload of police officers in riot gear started positioning themselves near the Zocalo. They soon dispersed, but the sight was unnerving.

For advice, I turned to several local sources, including hoteliers, U.S. diplomats, taxi drivers, store owners and security experts.

Michael Rock, general manager of the JW Marriott Hotel in the upscale Polanco district, stressed that visitors should study ways to get around the city, since many incidents involve transportation.

Mario González-Román, a retired Foreign Service officer and security specialist who runs Security Corner (, a Web site for expatriates and visitors, offered a list of neighborhoods to avoid.

Oscar Garrido, concierge at the Sheraton Maria Isabel hotel near the Zona Rosa district, recommended craft markets where shoppers are less likely to encounter cheating or petty crime.

"We think that people should visit Mexico City," said an official in the U.S. Embassy who declined to be quoted by name, citing embassy policy. "But they should be fully aware of the potential dangers and take all the precautions they would in any major city."

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